St. Patrick’s Day is the time of year when many raise a glass in their local “authentic Irish” pub to Ireland’s literary greats, from master satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) to poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013). In Japan too, the dynamic interaction of Ireland and Japan’s literary traditions is a rich one; from William Butler Yeats adapting Noh plays to novelist Yasunari Kawabata and his modernist contemporaries being inspired by James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
The literary link between these two nations is strengthened further by the story of William James Craig, an obscure, unsung Irishman who had an extraordinary impact on one of Japan’s greatest writers.
At the center of this story is the novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), who burst into profuse literary activity at the belated age of 37 with his landmark novel “I am a Cat,” (1905) marking the beginning of Japan’s literary golden age.
Throughout his twenties, Soseki had labored as a relatively unknown literary scholar but, in 1900, he was hand-picked and sent to London as a government-sponsored scholar for two years so that he might perfect his English. He first enrolled at University College, London, and attended the lectures of Professor W. P. Ker (1855-1923), an expert in medieval literature.
Soseki found himself unimpressed and soon dropped out, opting for a private tutor instead. The man he chose was an eccentric, other-worldly, disheveled, thickly-accented 56-year-old Irishman called William Craig, born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Soseki visited him once a week for nearly a year.
In London, Soseki constantly strived to discover an intellectual society in which he could discuss his literary passions, but he found himself trapped in a boarding house that he described simply as “irksome.”
He felt a profound sense of isolation, yet in Craig he discovered a kindred spirit, a man whose Irish identity and intensely poetic sensibility left him equally at a remove from the rest of the bustling imperial British society.
Soseki described Craig musing on how much more poetic the Irish were than the English as he observed people on the streets below his apartment window and how his body would literally shake — “oscillate” — with emotion as he read poetry aloud.
So keen was Soseki to entrust himself to this world of shimmering Irish poeticism that he actually proposed moving into Craig’s apartment off Baker Street in London. Although Soseki was already 33, he was effectively suggesting that he live like a shosei (live-in student) in the flat of his Irish sensei (teacher).
This was an extraordinary compliment that Soseki was paying — believing that, in time-honoured Japanese fashion, by absorbing how his sensei went about things on a daily basis, he could acquire a greater literary education than attending a lofty British university.
Craig failed to understand the cultural significance of Soseki’s suggestion and, after showing Soseki around his apartment to demonstrate how small it was, changed tack swiftly to a discussion of the American poet, Walt Whitman.
Instead, in their weekly sessions, Soseki closely observed the dedicated concentration of the literary Irishman on a single vast project — the compilation of a monumental “Shakespeare Lexicon” to which he had dedicated decades of research, stored in 10 blue notebooks kept as his greatest treasure.
Craig had, Soseki discovered, given up a chair at Aberystwyth University, caring little for money or reputation, so that he could devote his time and attention to this gargantuan task, spending every day at the British Museum to further his research.
It was watching this endeavor that planted in Soseki’s mind the seeds of doing something similarly monumental — of attempting to write an all-embracing universal “Theory of Literature” that would attempt to scientifically analyze literary techniques used throughout history.
Motivated by this great undertaking, Soseki eventually ceased his consultations with Craig and, like Craig, holed himself up in his own lodgings, in an attempt to read hundreds of second-hand books he had acquired in London, a task that led him to the point of nervous breakdown.
The pressure and inspiration exerted on Soseki’s mind by his Irish “sensei” was to create the most systematic theoretical analysis of literature ever attempted. And, when Soseki burst into literary production in 1904, he had at his disposal a huge armory of ideas.
In 1909, at the height of his literary career and as the culmination of a set of interlinked memoirs, he penned his masterpiece depiction of “Craig Sensei,” describing the Irishman — who by then had died — in the eternal present: “Professor Craig is nestled like a swallow on the third floor.”
Soseki’s account of Craig is bittersweet — he observes that Craig’s attitude toward him was often “cold” and “unsentimental” and that he treated him like a child. But hearing news of Craig’s death in 1906, he wonders what became of his unpublished research for his “Shakespeare Lexicon.”
One reader of Soseki’s story was the great Chinese author Lu Xun (1881-1936), who would not only go to translate it into Chinese, but also use it as a model for his own memoir of his professor in Japan in a much-loved short story, “Fujino Sensei.”
The year after Craig’s death, Soseki took a leaf out of his mentor’s book and resigned his university positions — causing a sensation in Japan — and published his “Theory of Literature.”
In ways that are not widely recognized, this obscure, obstinate, determined Irishman dedicating his life to the pursuit of literature in a London flat, had unexpected, powerful influences on the modern literature of both Japan and China. Next St. Patrick’s Day you might raise a glass to a half-forgotten figure who eschewed academia and instead, for all his eccentricity, embodied the true meaning of sensei, inspiring others to find brilliantly individualist literary paths.